Blu-ray Review: PATLABOR: ORIGINAL OVA SERIES Looks Fresh And Sharp
(Do you feel lucky, otaku?)
Confession time: after I saw Ghost in the Shell I became a stark raving mad fan of its director Oshii Mamoru, and made it a point to hunt down his other works as well. While I did not fall equally in love with all of his other films (this is Oshii after all...), his two Patlabor films were definitely happy discoveries. A surprisingly realistic down-to-Earth story about Tokyo police mecha which was ehm... not at all about the mecha, Patlabor turned out to be, in my opinion, awesome.
And the good news was that there was a lot more Patlabor to get! A television series spanning several seasons, for example. But there was a catch: the series and the films weren't taking place in the same continuity, both being separate versions in different universes. And I liked the movie universe a lot more.
However, the two films did have a companion piece of their own: leading up to the cinema release of the first film in 1989, seven short direct-to-video films (OVAs) were released in 1988. Unlike the television series, these do actually take place in the same universe as the films, preceding them and covering a lot of ground for their two big cinematic brothers to trample around on.
These OVAs have been out of print on DVD for years already. But now, new US distributor Maiden Japan (say that out loud, get it?) re-released all seven of them on Blu-ray. So what does a 25-year-old series made for television, originally released on VHS videotape, look like in High-Definition? Read on...
In the near future, several gigantic building projects in Japan have led to the development and implementation of a new kind of bulldozer: the Labor. Basically a large, ultrastrong humanoid version of its predecessors, Labors are versatile vehicles on legs.
Problem is, what if someone uses a Labor to try and rob a bank? Police would normally be powerless as you'd need a veritable army to stop a Labor. To solve this problem, the Tokyo police has a "Special Vehicles" Division, with a few specialized patrol Labors. Patlabors for short.
But the "Special Vehicles" Division is so far removed from normal police work, that it is seen as a career dead-end. Soon, the division is populated only by robot nerds and officers considered unfit for regular duty. Will this rag-tag outfit be able to save Tokyo, when needed, or end up accidentally destroying lots of it?
Tezuka Osama was probably the greatest single influence in manga and anime, earning him the nickname "God of Manga". But his practice of getting anime projects by under-bidding on his competitors, saddled the entire Japanese animation industry with what is known as "Tezuka's Curse". Anime made for television in the sixties, seventies and eighties was supposed to be dirt cheap. Studios got paid little for television work, and most of the distinct stylistic tropes of anime are born from cost-cutting tactics.
The OVA series of Patlabor was created in 1988 and is very much a product of the animation industry's poor economy at the time. While the two Patlabor films by Oshii stand out as technically magnificent (the first through extremely detailed backgrounds, the second by experimental use of 3D-cgi), the OVA series' animation looks cheap and never reaches the films' level of quality.
That doesn't mean the Patlabor OVAs are not worth looking at, though. Oshii Mamoru decided to have some serious fun with the concept of a slacker hero team in Tokyo, and made the stories outrageous and quite subversive. Patlabor's group of characters consists of derided outsiders who work like salary-men, and while their jobs look cool on paper, the OVAs focus on the general tediousness of the daily routine. Instead of cool robot action, Oshii Mamoru often gives the audience just a view of bored police officers growing tomatoes in their backyard, complete with a Kawai Kenji soundtrack.
Still, the seven episodes follow the second Patlabor crew through several crises. The stories differ in tone and quality, but even the worst one (a frigging Kaiju attack?!) has more merit in it than most regular anime. The focus is always slightly different from the expected "hero saves the day", even though often that is exactly what the crew is doing. I personally have a soft spot for the fourth episode, where the main characters try to solve the mystery of a ghost haunting a school.
And a special mention must be made of episodes five and six, which form one big story where the Patlabors need to stop a coup d'etat. This double-whammy is fantastic, a must-see for fans of the Oshii films. In fact, the second Patlabor film is almost a remake of these two episodes, although the antagonists have wildly different reasons for doing what they do.
So this is one fun, unusual series, and definitely worth checking out. If you first watch these OVAs, the two films even become better. A lot is gained by knowing the Patlabor crew's backgrounds when seeing the films, heightening both the personal stakes and the poignancy.
On To The Disc:
Maiden Japan has released the seven episodes on a single Blu-ray which is region A locked. The packaging is as simple as it gets, but Maiden Japan scores bonus points for providing a simple guide on the back, telling where exactly these OVAs fit in the Patlabor universe, chronologically.
So as I asked in the intro: what DOES a 25-year-old series made for television, originally released on VHS videotape, look like in High-Definition? Damn pristine, that's what. The image is sharp, far sharper I suspect than it was ever meant to be seen. Wherever a shadow effect was added by putting in a few quick scratches, you now see the separate scratches. Small pips and dirt particles are visible, but these may always have been on the source material already. You probably just were never able to see it before.
Look at the detail comparison to the left as it tells all you need to know. Note that it is only a small portion of the screen being shown, which actually means that the old DVD-release was hardly atrocious to begin with. Also, I cannot vouch for the color-timing differences as I had to use different machines to take the screenshots for the Blu-ray and the DVD. But there is no denying that the Blu-ray is vastly sharper and clearer. It's beautiful!
As for sound: both the Japanese and English soundtracks have been included in HD Stereo, and the English subtitles are excellent.
The DVD-release back in the day didn't have many extras (the main thing was the first episode of the ongoing series if I recall correctly), but this Blu-ray doesn't have anything at all pertaining to the OVAs. The only thing included is one trailer for Maiden Japan's other current Blu-ray release: Tokyo Magnitude 8.0.
But the OVAs themselves are very nicely presented here, easily looking better than ever before, and cheaper too. Therefore this release is most definitely recommended!
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